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In My Time of Dying: How I Came Face to Face with the Idea of an Afterlife

Sebastian Junger. Simon & Schuster, $27.99 (176p) ISBN 978-1-6680-5083-5

National Magazine Award winner Junger (Tribe) pieces together fragmented memories, accounts from his healthcare team and family, and scientific research for a mind-bending exploration of his own near-death experience. Stricken with severe abdominal pain in 2020, Junger was drifting in and out of consciousness in a hospital bed when his father, who had been dead for eight years, seemed to appear, “not so much floating as simply existing above me,” and “invit[ed] me to go with him.” After receiving treatment for a rare pancreatic aneurysm, and with a new awareness that “I was carrying my own destruction around... like a live hand grenade,” Junger sought to understand what he’d experienced through the scientific method of inquiry used by his physicist father. Investigations of quantum mechanics, death as entropy, and matter as dependent on human consciousness are interwoven with eloquent philosophical musings that cut against popular notions of death. “The idea that you will appreciate life more after almost dying is a cheap bit of wisdom” from those “who have never been near death,” Junger writes. Instead, one develops a paradoxical “appreciation of death... You will know yourself best at that moment; you will be at your most real.” It’s a riveting and resonant meditation on some of life’s biggest questions. (May)

Reviewed on 03/08/2024 | Details & Permalink

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The Third Perspective: Brave Expression in the Age of Intolerance

Africa Brooke. Hachette Go, $30 (288p) ISBN 978-0-306-83537-7

Executive coach Brooke debuts with a galvanizing guide to breaking from the “societal pressures [that] have been boxing in your thoughts and opinions.” In 2021, after the author noticed a widespread “aversion to questions” that “brought up psychological discomfort” in online discussions of social justice issues, she realized that she herself had become an “insufferable, self-righteous” manifestation of “the intolerance I claimed to oppose” and posted an open letter online (“Why I’m Leaving the Cult of Wokeness”). In it, she wondered if there was “still room for us as human beings to stumble, fuck up, learn and grow.” Drawing on subsequent observations of society’s “culture of fear,” as well as her coaching experience, Brooke invites readers to examine “limiting beliefs and fears” that impede expression, adopt an “ownership mindset” of their opinions, and cultivate a “do-it-your-own-way attitude” and “bounce-back toughness.” In the process, readers can develop the “maverick mindset” to express themselves more bravely online and in person and calmly receive opinions with which they disagree, whether the topic is personal, political, social, or religious (she mentions as examples vaccines, parenting choices, and immigration). Brooke’s tone is refreshingly candid throughout, and her personal coaching background shines in varied, pragmatic exercises (readers can investigate their self-policing “inner mob” or perform a risk analysis for bringing up dicey topics). It’s an invigorating invitation to speak one’s mind. (May)

Reviewed on 03/08/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Play with Your Cat! The Essential Guide to Interactive Play for a Happier, Healthier Feline

Mikel Maria Delgado, illus. by Lili Chin. TarcherPerigee, $20 trade paper (272p) ISBN 978-0-593-54133-3

Animal behaviorist Delgado debuts with a cheerful manual on “how to improve your cat’s life through play.” Cats have an instinctive need to hunt, she explains, and play provides a crucial outlet for indulging that urge. Delgado encourages owners to mimic birds, mice, or other prey with toys, which might mean running a stick under a rug or waving feathers in the air. Scientific research informs the advice, as when Delgado encourages rotating toys “between and within play sessions” because a study found that cats become bored if only offered a single plaything. Describing how to accommodate felines with varying abilities, Delgado entreats readers to mark the beginning of playtime for deaf cats by gently tapping the floor with a toy and notes that blind cats “can play with almost any cat toy” because their whiskers can detect air movement up to two feet away. There aren’t any major surprises, but owners will appreciate the suggested games (one involves placing upright toilet paper rolls throughout a room with kibble hidden in a few, encouraging the cat to sniff out the food) and Chin’s blue and gray cartoon felines charm. Cat lovers will want to get their paws on this. Agent: Gillian MacKenzie, Gillian MacKenzie Agency. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 03/08/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Amphibious Soul: Finding the Wild in a Tame World

Craig Foster. HarperOne, $29.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-06-328902-4

“Though our souls crave communion with wildness, we are a species that has overwhelmingly embraced tameness and ‘comforts’ that anesthetize rather than truly nurture,” contends filmmaker Foster (Underwater Wild), star of the 2020 documentary My Octopus Teacher, in this pensive if unfocused meditation on humanity’s relationship with the natural world. Reflecting on his own efforts to connect with nature, Foster describes diving with great white sharks, filming Nile crocodiles in underwater hideaways, and coming face-to-face with a jaguar. The book falls somewhat awkwardly between a memoir and personal essay collection, meandering through anecdotes organized loosely around such themes as connection, fear, and ancestry. For instance, a chapter on love ambles through accounts of how Foster met his wife at an English film festival, how one of his friends developed a rapport with a black musselcracker fish who would follow him on dives, and how a South African farmer Foster met through his documentary work raised an orphaned springbok antelope. Still, the author’s deep reverence for nature buoys the proceedings, and the evocative descriptions of his expeditions will transport readers (“The air is thick with buzzing insects and birdsong, and the great flowing river is a giant silver serpent fringed with vast beds of papyrus reeds,” he writes of Botswana’s Okavango Delta. This is a potent source of wonder. (May)

Reviewed on 03/08/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Everything Is Predictable: How Bayesian Statistics Explain Our World

Tom Chivers. One Signal, $30 (384p) ISBN 978-1-6680-5260-0

This beguiling mathematical romp from science writer Chivers (The Rationalist’s Guide to the Galaxy) surveys the far-reaching applications of the statistics theorem elaborated by the 18th-century English minister Thomas Bayes, who showed how to estimate the probability that a hypothesis is true by considering new data alongside “prior” assessments of the hypothesis’s accuracy. (For instance, the theorem might determine the probability that a middle-aged woman has Covid by considering a positive test result alongside the virus’s prevalence rate among middle-aged women generally.) Bayes’s theorem produces startling insights that can upend conventional wisdom, Chivers writes, noting that the equation explains why “a cancer test can be 99 percent accurate even though 99 percent of the people it says have cancer don’t.” Examining the theorem in a raft of offbeat contexts, the author suggests its focus on evaluating new information in the context of previous beliefs sheds light on why vaccine skeptics are unmoved by evidence demonstrating vaccines’ safety and efficacy, and why contestants guessing which door hides a prize on Let’s Make a Deal should always switch their pick after the host reveals one of the losing doors. Chivers’s dive into probability theory is heady but lucid, and conveys arcane concepts in commonsensical prose. The result is a stimulating take on making sense of a murky, uncertain reality. Photos. Agent: Melissa Flashman, Janklow & Nesbit Assoc. (May)

Reviewed on 03/08/2024 | Details & Permalink

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The Venture Alchemists: How Big Tech Turned Profits into Power

Rob Lalka. Columbia Univ, $35 (504p) ISBN 978-0-231-21026-3

In this ponderous debut account, Tulane University business professor Lalka profiles Mark Zuckerberg, Peter Thiel, and other Silicon Valley tech moguls who, he contends, have enriched themselves while subjecting ordinary people to constant surveillance and dispossessing them of their own data. His subjects include Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, whom Lalka criticizes for excluding users from the profits generated by the data they produce while searching the site. Uber founder Travis Kalanick is condemned for defying state labor laws to avoid giving drivers benefits and for letting employees use passenger data to track their one-night stands. Lalka suggests the wrongdoings of Silicon Valley CEOs stem from the philosophies of free-market economist Milton Friedman, who rejected the idea of corporate social responsibility, and capitalist ideologue Ayn Rand, who extolled the selfishness of “superior” men as a virtue. Lalka’s rehash of his subjects’ misdeeds is voluminous but doesn’t add much that hasn’t been covered before, and his message is sometimes hampered by over-the-top dudgeon. (Brooding on Kalanick’s corporate slogan, “Always be hustlin’,” Lalka writes that “the word that best describes such dominance-at-any-cost is neither closing nor hustling,” proposing that “it’s not quite, but it’s nearly... rape.”) The result is a vehement but unfocused jeremiad against the tech sector. (May)

Reviewed on 03/08/2024 | Details & Permalink

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And Then? And Then? What Else?

Daniel Handler. Liveright, $26.99 (240p) ISBN 978-1-324090-60-1

Handler (author of the A Series of Unfortunate Events books as Lemony Snicket) takes a charming if diffuse look at the people, literature, and films that shaped him. Topics on offer include misogyny in movies like Vertigo and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, Roald Dahl’s antisemitism, Handler’s experiences having his work adapted for the screen, and the “mysteries” underpinning his happy 26-year marriage. The author’s stated purpose is to share “the lunatic ways” such musings “explain what I’ve done and what I’m doing,” and by and large, he delivers. In a punchy, stream-of-consciousness style, Handler excavates his childhood—including a chilling, flatly delivered recollection of sexual abuse—and his fraught relationship with novel-writing, pulling readers into his funny, fractured world. The wide net he casts can, however, make the proceedings feel slightly rudderless, with too few through lines to tie the book’s entertaining parts into a satisfying whole. Still, this offbeat, discursive outing will entertain and enlighten Handler’s many fans. Agent: Charlotte Sheedy, Charlotte Sheedy Literary. (May)

Reviewed on 03/08/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Look at the U.S.A.: A Diary of War and Home

Peter van Agtmael. Thames & Hudson, $60 (352p) ISBN 978-0-500-02702-8

World Press Photo award winner van Agtmael (Sorry for the War) gathers searing images taken from roughly 2006 to 2023 of “the post-9/11 era, at war and at home.” Raised on “war stories with happy endings” told by his WWII vet grandfather, van Agtmael became a combat photographer after 9/11 and quickly soured on the “self-satisfaction” and hunger for power fueling America’s conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and on the home front (the January 6 attack on the Capitol and police violence against Black Americans are depicted, with the author making the case that long-running currents of racism and nationalism precipitated both). Featured are stark, arresting shots of soldiers crouched in alleyways; raucous, flag-waving rallies; and veterans’ wounds oozing blood. Yet the most stirring photos are subtler—a hand clutching the top of a wall near the Capitol; a uniformed officer picking up fruit dropped by a boy collapsed outside a Taliban ministry office. Despite a few distracting intrusions—including quoted conversations with the author’s parents about the danger of his work—the collection succeeds in viscerally exposing the often “ridiculous and obscene” narratives of American “triumphs” and their costs. This is hard to look away from. (May)

Reviewed on 03/08/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Rise of a Killah: My Life in the Wu-Tang

Ghostface Killah. St. Martin’s, $35 (240p) ISBN 978-1-250-27427-4

Rapper Ghostface Killah (The World According to Pretty Toney), a founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan and prolific solo artist whose legal name is Dennis Coles, portrays in his heartfelt memoir the “sharper than cleats” youth he drew on for his rhymes. Studded with full-color snapshots, the narrative has a free-associative flow, making readers feel as if they’re chopping it up with Coles as he reminisces about the painful background to such songs as 1996’s “All That I Got Is You.” He describes, for instance, how, as a preteen, he took care of his two younger brothers with muscular dystrophy after his parents separated in early-’80s Staten Island. Stories of the thefts, robberies, and drug deals that came a few years later are vaguer by comparison. Also featured are bracing depictions of Coles’s mental health issues and struggles to manage his diabetes so he can continue to tour, which lend a poignant note to the book’s triumphant conclusion (“We the Rolling Stones of this hip-hop shit,” Cole says of the Wu-Tang Clan, which formed in 1992). Just as revealing are his descriptions of the writing process behind his cinematic verses, which have often been inspired by hearing bandmate RZA’s production tracks (“I see things so vividly”). Devotees of hip-hop’s golden age will appreciate this jagged portrait. Illus. (May)

Reviewed on 03/08/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Egyptian Made: Women, Work, and the Promise of Liberation

Leslie T. Chang. Random House, $30 (368p) ISBN 978-0-525-50921-9

Women in Cairo walk the tightrope between traditional values and the globalized economy in this immersive and sharply observed account from journalist Chang (Factory Girls). In some developing countries, growth in the manufacturing sector has led to an increase in women’s employment, education, and basic rights, but Chang asserts that this has not happened in Egypt, where cultural restrictions on women have clamped down rather than eased up. (Any woman who wants to work must have her father’s or husband’s permission, which is often denied.) Chang profiles individual women she followed over the course of two years, including Riham, a rare female factory-owner, whose attempts to support her female employees and promote a familial work environment eventually gave way to a more authoritarian approach that emulated “the anonymity of the modern factory floor.” While Chang partially attributes this coarsening effect to the obstacles raised by traditional values, she likewise, and more bitingly, blames the leveling effect of globalization, which by pushing for uniformity and ever-greater productivity, squeezes women with family commitments out of the workforce and breeds reactionary politics. Chang’s cogent analysis and lyric impressions (women arriving at work “hug and kiss... as if they’ve been apart for months or years rather than just one day”) are threaded with insight into Egypt’s political and economic history. It’s an eye-opener. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 03/08/2024 | Details & Permalink

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